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Everyday ageism affects health of older adults

Sunita Sohrabji

A man goes to his orthopedist to complain about his aching left knee. “Oh, you’re just getting older,” says the physician dismissively.

“I may be getting old, doc, but my right knee isn’t hurting,” says the man.

Birthday card greeting: “A woman is unlike a bottle of fine wine. She tends to get sour and bitter with age.”

Younger worker jokes to co-worker: “You’re still coming in every day? Step aside, make some room for young blood.”

These are three seemingly benign examples of “everyday ageism,” defined as discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping based on age. Countless others exist, including in the spheres of health care, employment and housing. Age-related bias is expressed both explicitly and implicitly, by individuals or institutionally and culturally.

Ageism can have profound impacts on an older adult’s physical and mental well-being. Over 82% of adults over the age of 50 say they regularly experience one or more form of everyday ageism on a regular basis, reported the University of Michigan, which surveyed 2,048 adults in a 2019 poll. Women disproportionately suffer from age-related bias, which also has harmful impacts on their financial health.

Moreover, ageism can impact the electoral process. Mainstream media question whether President Joe Biden should run for a second term, given his age. Media have also published ageist pieces on Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, questioning her cognitive ability, and whether she should step down to make room for new progressives. And a July 20 op-ed in Esquire magazine proposes a “maximum age” of 80 for politicians.

At a July 15 news briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, four panelists discussed the impacts of everyday ageism. Higher levels of everyday ageism are associated with increased risk of evaluating one’s physical and mental health as fair or poor, said Dr. Julie Ober Allen, an adjunct faculty associate with the Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Everyday ageism is believed to contribute to accelerated aging as well as premature mortality, said Allen.

Structural inequities in the U.S. health care system deny life-saving procedures to older adults, such as organ transplants and clinical trials, said Allen. Moreover, physicians tend to communicate with the caregiver who has brought the patient in, so that older adults cannot directly advocate for themselves, she said.

Dr. Louise Aronson, geriatrician and professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, discussed the disproportionate impact of ageism on women. She noted that women of color face racism, sexism and ageism together, a troubling brew that affects economic stability and self-perception, among other factors.

Women across the board earn 82 cents on average for every dollar a man earns. Black and Latino women earn 65 cents versus their male counterparts. Women of color with advanced degrees earn 70 percent of what men earn.

“So women enter old age with less money and fewer resources,” said Aronson, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2020 for her book “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, and Reimagining Life.”

“Lookism” also comes into play for older women, said Aronson. “The importance of youthful and attractive appearance matters so much more for women than for men. There’s a lot of pressure for women to look youthful — the hair dye, all the cosmetic surgeries.”

Women who eschew products to make them look younger are evaluated as being less valuable, less competent, and they are more likely to be fired with the same qualifications and performance reviews as men,” said Aronson.

Patricia M. D’Antonio, vice president, policy and professional affairs at the Gerontological Society of America and executive director of the Reframing Aging Initiative, talked about solutions to address ageism at both an individual and societal level.

Communication is key, she noted.

“We must recognize that that’s a good thing that you have a hearing aid, it’s a good thing that you have access to a wheelchair or access to a shuttle, some transportation to be able to get around. Because then we know that we are able to feel that we continue to contribute to society,” said D’Antonio.

“Quite often it’s important for us to highlight and tell a more complete story about aging that shows the creative solutions, that demonstrates that we are highly innovative,” she said. “These are the kind of values that we know that will get people to think about aging in a much more complete way.”

Sunita Sohrabji is a reporter with Ethnic Media Services.

age discrimination, ageism, opinion